Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
A few years ago, Will Dinski sent me a couple of his mini-comics, and when I write mini-comics, I mean that they were tiny, length- and width-wise. They were pretty good, but so short and small that were more curiosities than anything else. Now he’s sent me his latest, Covered in Confusion, which is self-published and costs 6 dollars on his web site.
This nice, slim (46-page) comic tells a quick story about shame. The characters, a woman who reminisces about two high school teachers after she meets an old friend at the grocery store and the two high school teachers themselves, are connected through shameful acts, and none of them can completely handle it. The woman, Janice, committed two acts in high school for which she feels shame, while the teachers each committed one. I don’t want to give anything away, which might make this a horrible review, but the things the characters do are so important that I don’t really want to go into them. What Dinski does, however, is show how people respond to embarrassing situations and what shame does for us as people. We meet Janice in the store as she accidentally knocks over cantaloupe and feels a great deal of embarrassment. Back in high school, we see a teacher humiliate her, perhaps intentionally but perhaps not, when he shows where muscles are on the body by circling the areas on her skin in front of the class. She is easily embarrassed, in other words, and this is a crucial point when she commits her second (and, ultimately, more important) shameful act. She doesn’t want to get involved, and her lack of action leads to tragedy. It’s a horrible moment, because we know what her “sin of omission” will mean (Dinski has already shown us), but we also understand why she does what she does, and that makes it even more horrific.
The teachers, meanwhile, do different shameful things, and Dinski does a nice job showing how the degree and intent of the act changes the way we view it. One teacher does something awful, while the other does something that results in something awful but isn’t itself malicious. Both should be ashamed, but it’s interesting that Dinski doesn’t show the reaction of the first teacher, who is willfully horrible. The second teacher, Mr. Danielson, is a fine teacher who cares a great deal about his students, and his act devastates him. Dinski gives him a character quirk that he can’t turn off even after he commits his awful act, which makes him even more ashamed. This comic is a tragedy, make no mistake about it, but it serves a purpose – Dinski wants to examine why people do certain things and why some people feel the effects of things differently from others. Janice never tells anyone about her shame, because she fears people will judge her like they judge Mr. Danielson. Mr. Danielson, not surprisingly, spirals into depression, which is probably why Janice never tells anyone. She doesn’t want to end up like him, but in many ways, she has. Dinski never examines the flip side of shame – forgiveness. Would anyone forgive Janice? Given what happens to Mr. Danielson, probably not. But it’s never addressed, which makes this an even more tragic book. Dinski argues that shame is not a bad thing, but when we sublimate our shame and don’t address it, it cripples our growth as people. Janice and Mr. Danielson have never come to terms with their shame, and in different ways, they’ve never been able to move on in their lives.
This book will not make you happy, I’ll tell you that much. Dinski doesn’t want to make us happy, he wants us to consider the things we do and how we react to them and whether or not we should be ashamed of them. Ultimately, the teacher who does the truly horrible thing probably feels less remorse than Janice and Mr. Danielson, who do stupid things but not what we would call unforgivable things. Dinski wants us to consider what we would do if we were in Janice’s and Mr. Danielson’s situations, but he also wants us to consider what we would do if we knew people like them. Would we encourage their shame? Would we forgive them? It’s a tough choice, but it’s part of what makes us human. Dinski does a fine job creating characters who try to do the right thing, but find it harder than they expect. Does that make them irredeemable?
Tomorrow at noon: Nothing. Nada. Zip. I got nothin’. I’ve done this for three total weeks. The first one I posted was on the seventh of September, which seems like a long, long time ago. I need a break. Although I am working on the last post about The Incredible Hulk, so there’s that …
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